Who Profits From For-Profit Journals?

At AAUP conference on academic freedom, speakers question why professors give their work to corporate publishers.
June 12, 2009

WASHINGTON -- It's time to shake loose from commercial journal publishers. That was the message here Thursday at the meeting of the American Association of University Professors, which urged academics to seek nonprofit venues for their work.

The proliferation of nonprofit publishing options should be driving down submissions to corporate journals, according to Salvatore Engel-DiMauro, professor of geography at the State University of New York at New Paltz, who, along with Rea Devakos, information technology services coordinator at the University of Toronto library, discussed the “Corporate Appropriation of Academic Knowledge” at the annual meeting of university professors yesterday. But that’s not happening.

“In human geography alone,” Engel-DiMauro said, “I have noticed that about 88 percent – that’s 38 out of 43 – of the journals used to publish human geography research are owned by corporations.” Similarly, nearly all academic geography associations’ journals are published in partnership with corporations, he said.

The problem with commercial publishing of academic work, Engel-DiMauro continued, is a matter of access and compensation.

“Corporations use unpaid academic labor for knowledge production and consumption,” he said, noting the peer-review process, the writing and research that go into producing publishable articles, and unpaid editorial posts. “Why is there this continuation of working for corporations for free? It doesn’t make any sense.”

And it is not just the academics whom Engel-DiMauro says should be shying away from commercial journal publication. It’s not in the interest of the universities either, he said: they provide the infrastructure and resources for knowledge production that leads to publishable articles without getting compensated.

Those in the for-profit publishing industry tend to disagree. No one at the session spoke in defense of for-profit publishers. But in an interview, John Tagler, executive director of professional and scholarly publishing for the Association of American Publishers – which represents all types of journals, including commercial and non-profit society journals – said it would be wrong to say that just because one sector of publishing turns a profit it should be “cut out of the system.”

Both for-profit and nonprofit journals are “part of the economic balance … helping to keep a commercial edge in new product development,” he said. What’s more, Tagler continued, most commercial journals do provide financial support to maintain editorial office functions at the universities from which they draw submissions. Similar to how a society journal would reinvest its resources back into its composite departments, a commercial journal invests in university infrastructure, too.

“Societies call it surplus, commercial publishers call it profit,” he said.

Still, the presenters Thursday were unconvinced that compensation by commercial, for-profit journals back to the academics who write for them is actually happening.

So why would professors and universities continue to buy into a model of publication that is taking advantage of them and their resources? Complacency, Engel-DiMauro said. Because it is simply the way things have always been done in higher education – and because tenure is so dependent on high-profile publication.

But while professors who slave away over their publishable, peer-reviewed articles may think it is in their best interest to submit to the large – increasingly expensive – high profile commercial journals, Devakos said the most compelling reason for faculty members to utilize other types of journals is, surprisingly, self-interest.

“The easier your research is to find, the more likely you are to be cited,” she said, adding that open-access models of publishing allow academics’ literature to be searchable on Google. “And you also get an increased and different kind of readership” with an article published in a journal that is not fee-restricted for viewers. Devakos also went on to mention, if not completely endorse, the idea that academics might have a moral obligation to disseminate their scholarly work in a way that is most likely to reach a sizable audience for the purposes of public debate. Additionally, many non-profit journals are in fact using peer-review, meaning those venues also offer the quality-control academics seek out in publishing their work.

A few alternatives to completely commercially managed journals the speakers mentioned included self-managed, non-profit, open-access models (like ACME, where Engel-DiMauro serves on the editorial board); self-managed, nonprofits with fee-restricted access (Human Geography: A New Radical Journal is one); pooled control, free access journals (SCOAP3); or even – though Engel-DiMauro admitted they can be too pricey for academics -- corporate-owned journals that provide free access but charge the author (Open Geography Journal).

Options like these could become the standard for academic publishing, and provide the kind of exposure scholars need to gain credibility in their fields, if only a few brave souls start the trend, Engel-DiMauro said.

“Unless you have established faculty promoting this, it’s going to be difficult to change,” he said. That is, “unless there is a forced change [by administrators],” he added. “That could be the key.”


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